Every August, the American Cheese Society lures cheesemongers and makers from all over the U.S. and Canada to one city for a weekend of hot-headed cheese talk, judging, and fun. This year the conference was held in Seattle, the temperate home of many beautiful public markets and nearby dairies. American cheesemakers can submit their products to be assessed and graded by a panel of cheese-industry professionals who evaluate the cheeses within their categories and also on the whole. This year's winner of the much-coveted Best in Show title: Extra Aged Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a cheese from Uplands Cheese Company in Dodgeville, Wisconsin.
A raw, gruyère-style cows' milk cheese, Pleasant Ridge is a firm tomme with a healthy, smooth, natural rind that's feltlike to the touch. If I were a more skilled artist, I would paint a tribute to the rind of Pleasant Ridge Reserve. The interior paste is smooth and even with the occasional crystalline crunch. The flavors are sweetly nutty with an earthy bite that would make its Swiss cousin proud. A beautiful cheese for melting or sandwiches, although in my kitchen it doesn't usually get farther than hand and mouth. The more aged the wheel, the deeper and more caramelly the flavors become; this year's winning wheels were aged well more than one year.
For me, this is a cheese that does more than taste and feel good. Cheesemaker Andy Hatch only makes Pleasant Ridge Reserve from milk produced when the cows have been out on pasture, giving the milk and cheese a rich, golden color and bright flavor full of summer. Beyond that, the cheese is only made on days when the pasture conditions and milk composition are just right for cheesemaking.
Being so selective makes for a cheese that's incredibly consistent and shows the benefits of milking healthy animals that are fed on lush pasture. The cows are grazed rotationally to give the land time to spring back and to spread around the nutritious benefits the cows leave behind. The farm is a superb example of how a dairy can be run responsibly and with great results.
If you see this cheese, buy some and eat it. Get a freshly cut piece whenever possible, and break out the cornichons if you're a pickle lover. It's no surprise that Pleasant Ridge has won the Best in Show not once, not twice, but thrice — 2001, 2005, and 2010.
About the author: Katrina Vahedi has had a decade-long professional love affair with cheese and all things dairy. She is currently a curd pusher at New York's Saxelby Cheesemongers after nine years of mongering in California.